Coast is partnering with the Ramblers each month to promote coastal walking. In this month’s column, DANNY CARDEN, communications officer, highlights a route at the centre of a major campaign.

Just north of the village of Embo in Sutherland, in the Scottish Highlands, lies Coul Links, an internationally protected wildlife site. An unspoiled area of coastal dunes, it is home to a wide variety of protected plants and animals and an attractive section of the John O’Groats Trail, the first-ever off-road link between Inverness and John O’Groats. It is also one of the finest undeveloped, species-rich dune habitats in Scotland.

But in 2017, Coul Links came under threat when plans were lodged by developers looking to construct a new 18-hole golf course. This would this have caused significant environmental damage to a unique area. But it would also have limited much of the public access to the dunes on this stunning section of coastline.

The Ramblers launched a campaign, alongside a coalition of conservation organisations, to hold a public inquiry into the plans. In February 2022, the Scottish Government rejected the plans, saving one of Scotland’s finest coastal habitats. It sent a clear signal of the importance of preserving our most delicate ecosystems and the right of the public to access our great outdoors.

Without doubt, the best way to explore this stunning section of coastline is by walking it. So the Inverness Ramblers have crafted a hidden gem of a route that takes in everything this beautiful landscape to offer.

The route begins from the car park by Dornoch’s old station, opposite a waymarked path into adjacent woodland. A historic Highland market town and seaside resort, Dornoch itself is well worth a visit either before or after setting out.

Entering the wood and keeping to the lower path, you’ll bear right at the fork and reach a track with views over the Royal Dornoch Golf Course and out to sea. On a fine day, look out for the red and white stripes of Tarbat Ness lighthouse near Portmahomack. It was built by Robert Stevenson in 1830 and is Scotland’s third-tallest lighthouse.

The route follows an old railway track, part of the John O’Groats Trail, and offers straightforward scenic walking all the way to the village of Embo, where the popular Grannie’s Heilan’ Hame Holiday Park is situated.

Where the track meets meet the road, you’ll turn left to pass a few homes then re-join the John O’Groats Trail beside the last house in the village. This is a fine spot to take in the views inland to the Easter Ross hills. Meanwhile, on your right, you’ll see Coul Links, the haven for wildlife, peace and solitude that we fought so hard to protect.

The route then follows John O’Groats Trail signage all the way to Loch Fleet, a tranquil National Nature Reserve home to seals and a wide variety of birds. When the trail meets a farm, you’ll exit the field through the gate to the left and on to a lane and head towards the beach. This area is remarkably quiet, with a long expanse of sandy beach and stunning sand dunes. It’s worth trying to spot the grandeur of Dunrobin Castle in the distance.

Once back at Embo, depending on the tide and sea state, you can continue on the beach past Grannie’s Heilan’ Hame until you reach a signed path picked up at the edge of the golf course. Alternatively, you can walk through the caravan park taking a rightwards path and pick up a track there. Both routes take you back to the track that you followed during the outward journey.

When you reach the woodland again, take the right fork and find the Earl’s Cross, a memorial to the Battle of Embo. You can also spot a ‘fairy glen’ on the right-hand side of the track.

Continuing back through the woodland, you’ll reach your starting point and have completed a loop of some of Scotland’s most untouched coastline.

For more information on reaching the starting point, visit:


If a wander in the Highlands is out of reach, try out these three similar routes which may be closer to you:

Roseland Peninsula, Cornwall

A walk of two halves beginning with wild Cornish coastline, wide open skies, hidden coves and deserted beaches. Look out for glimpses of seals and sea birds. Then, in the second half, a sharp contrast as you explore a wooded, quiet estuary.

The Cleveland Way to Ravenscar, North Yorkshire

A pretty section of coast path along the Cleveland Way leads to the outstanding viewpoint of Ravenscar. The route then returns along a fine moorland stretch with views over the whole of Robin Hood’s Bay, before field paths return you to the starting point at Boggle Hole Youth Hostel.

Dungeness, Kent

Dungeness, sometimes referred to as “the UK’s only desert”, is known for its desolate beauty. This circular walk, which ends in a train ride, takes you through two nature reserves, two lighthouse and the famous Derek Jarman Cottage, once home to the avant-garde artist and film maker.


The campaign to save Coul Links tapped into a groundswell of support, with thousands of people campaigning for the Scottish Government to step in. But now, just over three years later, this unique habitat is again under threat.

In February of this year, a new, and very similar, planning application was published on the Highland Council website. And as before, developers are seeking to construct an 18-hole golf course along with all the parking and infrastructure that would go along with it.

In my opinion, these plans would permanently transform Coul Links’ spectacular dunes and the myriad of different habitats that they support. And the effects would not only be environmental. Exactly as before, seven of the holes would cut across the John O’Groats Trail and it would restrict walkers’ access to other parts of this pristine section of coastline.

Protecting and expanding access to the outdoors lies at the heart of the Ramblers’ mission. That’s why we’re launching a new campaign to oppose these plans. And we need your support.


If we are to protect Coul Links, we need to recapture the energy and widespread support that so effectively saw off the first attempt at development. Together, we can send a clear message that our finest beauty spots are not up for sale to the highest bidder.

Whether you’re a nature-lover, rambler or conservationist, we are calling on everyone to unite to save these globally-protected Highland dunes. Together, we can stand up for memorable, quiet places like Coul Links before they are lost forever.

Find out how you can support our campaign by visiting the website:

Get some holiday inspiration by checking out our article on the best Spring walks along the Cornish coastline, or check out the book The England Coast Path on our Coast bookshop.